June 12, 2020

How RTA Maryland Uses Rider Alerts to Update Passengers during COVID-19

Sam Lewis
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RTA Maryland services Columbia (above), Hanover, Ellicott City, and other cities in Central Maryland. Photo: Columbia Association.
June 12, 2020

How RTA Maryland Uses Rider Alerts to Update Passengers during COVID-19

Sam Lewis
June 12, 2020

How RTA Maryland Uses Rider Alerts to Update Passengers during COVID-19

Sam Lewis

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced public transit agencies to alter service and implement new rules, making it challenging to keep riders informed. Agencies like RTA Maryland have had to adapt quickly to provide safe transportation to their riders, and they’ve often had to make rapid modifications to planned service. RTA Maryland is using Swiftly Rider Alerts to give riders real-time information on changes to service in every rider-facing app and display in their service area, making sure that riders have everything they need to get where they’re going.

No easy way to get the word out

Changes to service are a part of everyday operations at any transit agency. Even without a pandemic, agencies have to make sure that riders know about changes and provide information about alternative routes. The team at RTA Maryland knows it’s crucial that riders be provided the information they need to change travel plans accordingly and still get to where they need to go. But they lacked an easy, singular way to send alerts to riders.

“There was no one clear way to alert riders of changes,” says Cole McCarren, Senior Transit Analyst at RTA Maryland. “We would use a hodgepodge of avenues for getting the word out.”

The agency had put in a lot of work over the last year to make it easier for riders to find out about disruptions. They started a Twitter account devoted exclusively to service alerts and added a widget to their website that would post changes to service. But they didn’t want to force riders to check a Twitter feed every day. They still needed a better solution — a way to proactively inform riders of changes to service and meet them where they look for transit information, like Google Maps and Transit app.

That need became even greater during COVID-19, when service has changed dramatically and left riders guessing how to navigate their trips quickly and safely. “We describe it internally as an active alert versus a passive alert. With a passive alert, you have to actually check Twitter to find out what’s going on. Your phone doesn’t vibrate and give you a notification,” says McCarren. “We want to tell riders when things are of interest to them. People don’t want to scroll through alerts for routes they don’t take.”

A powerful tool for proactive alerts

RTA Maryland started using Swiftly Rider Alerts shortly after the pandemic began, and it completely altered how they alert passengers about changes to service. Active alerts aren’t just an agency-wide dream anymore; they can proactively send passengers notifications about changes to service.

Rider Alerts extends Swiftly’s Transitime product and adds rider-facing alerts to Transitime’s industry-leading real-time vehicle arrival predictions. Agencies can use Rider Alerts to send information about changes to service to trip planning apps and modified routing to navigation apps. The Rider Alerts module publishes a GTFS-rt feed, an open data standard, so any app can incorporate these messages. Passengers get the updated information they need in real time, without having to cross-reference their planned trip with a long list of changes to service.

“Rider Alerts lets you send an alert in a standardized format, and it makes sending alerts a lot easier,” says McCarren. “It’s a way to complement the real-time data that you might already have, like your vehicle locations and your arrival and departure details. It translates geographic- and time-based data into plain English sentences to communicate with people based on exactly what services they use so that they can be alerted actively about things that will pertain to them.”

And when Rider Alerts is combined with Swiftly Service Adjustments, dispatchers can easily modify service and alert riders, all from the same simple interface. “Swiftly lets you cancel service at a stop, and then alert riders, update real-time arrival predictions, and completely block predictions from showing up for that stop on the real time applications out there, all within the Swiftly interface,” says McCarren.

“That is a really, really powerful tool to have at the dispatcher’s disposal,” he continues. “You can say, ‘Hey, this stop is blocked by construction, and we’re not going there for the rest of the day, but we’re still doing the rest of the route as usual.’ You can take every action you’d need to take in under a minute, and all on the Swiftly platform, which everyone here already uses. It makes it that much easier for us to be sending out these sorts of alerts, when everybody has Swiftly right there in front of them.“

The Rider Alerts integration is particularly powerful with Transit app, where passengers can subscribe to alerts on their favorite lines and receive a push notification as soon as agencies publish new information. “You see how it looks on Transit app, with, for example, a red ‘X’ over lines with cancellations, and it’s such a next level experience. And when you use it alongside the Swiftly Live Operations tool, it’s really something special. It becomes more than just sending a message to the rider. Being able to alter predictions is huge.”

Keeping riders informed during COVID-19

As Maryland prepares to open up, the agency is grateful to have Rider Alerts to keep passengers informed. “Rider Alerts is definitely going to be a lifesaver for keeping riders up to date as we start to add service again during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says McCarren.

“We’ve been running a Sunday schedule, with service ending around six pm each day. And, for example, we had a rider who works the nightshift at an Amazon warehouse ask when we would begin offering later service again to help her get to work,” McCarren explains. “I told her to download Transit app and we’ll send her an alert when we begin to expand service on that route. She doesn’t need to check the website every day or check our Twitter every day. She just needs to favorite her route and subscribe to our notifications.”

He wishes that they’d had Rider Alerts earlier in the pandemic, to help when the crisis first started. “Midway through the shutdown, Governor Hogan ordered everyone on public transit to have a mask on. It wasn’t a requirement before, so this was a change in protocol. There was a period of time where we had to make sure riders were wearing masks when they boarded,” says McCarren. “We had a whole push around letting people know, with staff stationed at bus stops and with signs posted on buses. Rider Alerts would have really come in handy then.”

McCarren and the rest of the RTA Maryland team is excited about possibilities for Rider Alerts beyond COVID-19. “Having everything in this commonly consumable format is going to let us take advantage of a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t be available to us if we were acting under the sort of hodgepodge alerting system we were using before,” says McCarren. “We want to do a website redesign and having Swiftly’s APIs available to us is going to be incredibly helpful. We can use a JSON feed for our service alerts and we can get to the point where we can automatically display ‘caution’ icons on our website next to the routes with changes to service.”

In the long term and the short term, that means more reliable service for riders throughout RTA Maryland’s service area. “Having data in that standard format allows us to really convey information in a way that riders will understand. We know it’ll look clean and it’ll work well. Things don’t break as much as they did before,” says McCarren. “So yeah, I’d say Rider Alerts falls perfectly in line with RTA Maryland’s mission.”

Interested in trying Rider Alerts? We’re offering free access to our Beta Program through September 2020 to help transit agencies navigate changes to service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Join the Beta Program today!

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